Ireland must continue to invest in wind farms
The State’s renewable energy production sector can be an exemplar to Europe
Wind energy is vital to meeting our national renewable energy targets by 2020. Failure to do so will incur heavy fines. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first onshore wind farm in Ireland in Bellacorick, Co Mayo, which has a generation capacity of just over 6MW, enough to power 3,900 homes. Today, more than 250 wind farms power Irish businesses and communities across the all-Ireland energy market. Their total capacity now exceeds 3GW, enough to power almost two million homes and on particularly windy days generate over 60 per cent of the market’s electricity needs.
Renewables now meet one-quarter of Ireland’s electricity demand. Overall this sector employs 4,400 people and has invested €4.2 billion to date with a further €2.4 billion investment planned over the next three years to ensure Ireland reaches its target of 40 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Under the EU directive, Ireland will have to meet a 16 per cent target of our energy demand from renewable sources by 2020, which will be challenging for policymakers, industry and consumers alike.
However, as a country, we still import 88 per cent of our energy needs which costs us a staggering €15 million a day according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. This is a lost opportunity, both in terms of economic competitiveness and in our ability to provide clean sustainable energy for our citizens. We need a public and political climate that supports renewable energy to ensure security of supply as a solution to climate change and to ensure our future prosperity.
New planning guidelines are being finalised by Minister for Energy and Natural Resources Denis Naughten which will determine how future wind farms will be developed. It is critical that these guidelines do not imperil future investment in the sector or Ireland’s obligations on renewables.
A key challenge for the sector itself is a more proactive and meaningful engagement with communities. As a sector, we haven’t always got this right and there have been difficulties in local communities. There has also been good collaboration with real community benefits – we need more of this. The wind industry needs to greatly expand its outreach and community engagement, and roll out creative and wide-ranging options for community shared-ownership in wind energy projects. This is something we are determined to get right. The industry is fully committed to the new code of best practice recently introduced by Naughten. It contains sensible recommendations which, when implemented, should increase goodwill and support in communities. If a community is helping the sector to harness the natural energy available, it’s only fair that those local communities should have an opportunity to share in the collective progress being made on Ireland’s clean-energy journey. The Irish Wind Energy Association is examining shared-ownership models in other countries and this will be an essential part of the future of the industry.
I believe Ireland stands on the verge of something very special for energy production. We have a natural source to power businesses and communities. Ireland has a huge natural advantage to develop wind and other renewable energy sources, including solar and biomass, and we have the capability and capacity to be the 21st-century clean energy innovator of Europe. In the short term, wind energy is vital to meeting our national renewable energy targets by 2020. Failure to do so will incur heavy fines that will only serve to divert precious exchequer resources away from much-needed public services and capital investment. However, in the longer-term, we need to plan how we can meet our energy commitments in 2030, 2040 and indeed 2050. Reducing our dependency on imported fossil fuels is not merely about meeting EU obligations, it’s about our moral obligations as citizens to prioritise our environment.
I am confident businesses and communities in Ireland want clean, renewable energy sources, including wind, to play an active role in powering our future. Through greater engagement, understanding and co-operation between industry and communities, there is a lot we can achieve together for the country. The wind industry has come a long way since 1992 and so too has Ireland. Irish society is more diverse, Irish business is more dynamic. And increasingly, an informed and responsible citizenry is hungry for clean and responsible energy sources to fuel our future.
Gary Healy is chief executive of the Irish Wind Energy Association